Charles Larson, prolific writer-producer

Charles Larson title card for The FBI episode “Slow March Up a Steep Hill.”

Another in a series about unsung figures of television

In the 21st century, top producers of TV shows are celebrated as “showrunners.” In the 20th century, such figures were anonymous to the general public.

Thus was the case with Charles Larson. He was the founding producer (i.e. the day-to-day producer) of The FBI, who probably should have credited as the series creator but the show never had a creator credit. He guided other series as well.

As a writer only, Larson worked on everything from the Clayton Moore-Jay Silverheels version of The Lone Ranger to the mini-series Centennial.

One of his fans was director Ralph Senensky, whose many credits included episodes of 12 O’Clock High and The FBI where Larson worked as associate producer and producer respectively.

Larson “was a fine writer who did an amazing amount of rewriting on scripts before and even during filming,” Senensky wrote about Larson.

Concerning an episode of 12 O’Clock High titled “The Trap,” Senensky wrote: ” The script I was given was a blatant melodrama of five people stranded in a cellar during a London air raid. Charles fleshed out the people and created a complex study of the conflict of class differences as five people faced the ugly horror of war.”

Senensky wrote that his favorite episode of The FBI was a second-season installment called “The Assassin.” The teleplay was credited to John McGreevy and the plot to Anthony Spinner. “I detected Charles’ fine handprints all over THE ASSASSIN, the best script I had yet been handed on THE FBI and eventually the best one of the series I would ever direct.”

On The FBI, Larson wrote and produced the fourth episode, “Slow March Up a Steel Hill.” It looks like it may have been the pilot.

There’s a lot of explanatory dialogue concerning how the wife of Inspector Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) was killed in an ambush meant for the FBI man. Erskine’s sidekick is determined to marry Erskine’s college-age daughter (!). And it’s established that Erskine was so stubborn, he sometimes got in trouble with his boss, assistant director Arthur Ward (Philip Abbott). The latter theme wouldn’t be used much after the first half of the first season.

Also, on The FBI, Larson had to deal with the real-life bureau, which had veto power over guest stars and scripts. “Charlie had a really difficult job,” production manager Howard Alston told author Jonathan Etter for the book Quinn Martin, Producer. “The first year he had to listen to all the FBI’s input, to all of the people who felt they knew more about how to do the show than he did.”

After departing The FBI after the fourth season, Larson produced other series, none of which was a big hit. He continued as a writer beyond that. One of his most memorable scripts was for the 1977 Hawaii Five-O episode The Bells Toll at Noon. There were three separate writing credits but Larson was listed as doing the final teleplay.

The story concerns a disturbed man (Rich Little) who kills people while re-enacting scenes from classic movies. Little, the famed impressionist, mimicked James Cagney and other movie stars. It was one of the highlights of the show’s ninth season.

Larson died in 2006 at the age of 83.

William W. Spencer: ‘Artist who painted with light’

Stephen Brooks and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as photographed by William W. Spencer in The FBI.

Stephen Brooks and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as photographed by William W. Spencer in The FBI.

Another in a series of unsung figures of television.

With films, the director of photography often is celebrated as an artist and a critical contributor.

On television? Not so much. Even today, with TV’s prestige at an all-time high (where television is hailed as more adult than motion pictures), directors of photography don’t get the attention of their movie counterparts.

However, people who worked with television directors of photography are fully aware of how much they bring to the table. That’s certainly the case with William W. Spencer, a two-time Emmy winner who was also nominated a third.

“Billy Spencer was an artist who painted with light,” director Ralph Senensky wrote on his website about The FBI episode titled The Assassin.

Similar comments were expressed by those in front of the camera. “He knew what he wanted all the time, how he wanted to set it up, how it would be dramatically correct,” actress Lynda Day George told author Jonathan Etter for the book Quinn Martin, Producer.

In the first episode of The FBI, Jeffrey Hunter played Francis Jerome, a psychotic killer with sexual identity issues. Jerome kills women by strangling them with their own long hair.

In Act III, Jerome visits the dreary home of his domineering grandmother (Estelle Winwood). After bending to her will, yet again, Jerome freaks out as he looks at the portrait of the long-haired Blue Boy.

In a close up, Spencer’s lights emphasize Jerome’s eyes. In the 21st century, that’s an old-fashioned technique, but effective in telling the story.

Born in 1921, Spencer worked camera-related jobs at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as the studio was beginning to decline from its glory days. He graduated to director of photography (one of two) for the 1958 movie Andy Hardy Comes Home.

MGM shifted Spencer to television with a series based on The Thin Man. He would work in television for the bulk of his career.

That meant working faster than even modestly budgeted movies.

“You were constantly adapting, constantly sacrificing and letting things go,” Spencer told Etter for the Quinn Martin book.

When filming at a borrowed house on location, “We frequently shot in very cramped quarters,” Spencer said. “The lamps were often so close to the actors, they almost got burned.”

Spencer worked on various series, including The Richard Boone Show, an anthology show with the same actors appearing every week. From there, he was recruited to QM Productions and assigned to photograph 12 O’Clock High, the World War II drama.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in a first-season episode of The FBI

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as photographed by William W. Spencer in a first-season episode of The FBI

The director of photography picked up his first Emmy for that series. QM then shifted Spencer to The FBI, the production company’s first color series.

“Now he was filming in color and his photography was magnificent, because he lit it the same way he lit black and white, with cross lighting,” Ralph Senensky wrote about The Assassin episode of The FBI..

In a separate post about the 12 O’Clock High episode The Trap, the director wrote that Spencer hated color. “When color became the dominant mode of transmission on television, Billy watched on his color television set, but he watched in black and white with the color turned off.”

Spencer mostly worked at QM for more than a decade. He occasionally scored movie jobs, including 1967’s Countdown and QM’s only feature film, 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz.

After QM ceased operations, Spencer remained active into the 1980s. He won a second Emmy for the Fame television series.

Spencer died in 2007, at the age of 85.

A director reflects on making episodes of spy TV

From The Night of Big Blast directed by Ralph Senesky

From The Night of Big Blast directed by Ralph Senensky

Ralph Senesky directed a lot of episodic television, including installments of 1960s spy-related television series. In 2009 and 2010 ON HIS BLOG, Senensky described some of the episodes he helmed in detail.

For example, there was The Night of the Druid’s Blood, a first-season episode of The Wild, Wild West. At this point, the series producer was Gene L. Coon, who “told me that because of the uniqueness of the series, he rewrote most of the scripts; that he used the writer’s first draft submission as a frame for him to build on.”

One of the guest stars was Don Rickles. “Don was always on, with his incredibly sharp wit and acute skills of observation. It seemed almost no one was safe. Robert Conrad was not the tallest creature on the planet, but according to Rickles he barely reached the height of Billy Barty.” However, the director also wrote all that ended when the cameras started to roll. “he was fanatically serious about his work.”

Senensky was back a few months later for a second-season West episode, The Night of the Big Blast. Gene Coon was gone, with Michael Garrison (who had been executive producer) in the producer’s chair. There was one other big change: the series was now being made in color.

To save money during those early years of filming in color, not all of the daily rushes would be printed in color. For each sequence only one setup would be printed in color (it was usually the master shot for the scene). The rest of the takes for that sequence would be printed in black and white. Therefore the work print of the film would bounce back and forth from color master to black and white closeups. It wasn’t until the final answer print that we got to see the entire film in color.

Senensky also describes the work habits of old Hollywood (guest star Ida Lupino) and the then-newer variety during the first day of filming.

The crew reported at the usual 7:30 am; filming was scheduled to begin at 8:00 am. Five minutes before 8, Ida Lupino reported to the set, in costume and makeup, ready to film. At 8:25 am our Miklos, MIchael McCloud, arrived; at 8:50 am Robert Conrad showed up and we were able to start filming. Allthough these late arrivals were not standard practice throughout the television industry, they also were not sole occurrences.

(snip)

But studios and production companies, in the age of television were at a disadvantage. Once an actor was established as a bona fide star of a successful network series, they seemed to hold the stronger hand. If the studio fired Vince Edwards, how does BEN CASEY continue on the air? Or Peter Falk on COLUMBO? Or Robert Blake on BARETTA? It was a different world. I know of a show (which shall remain nameless) where the producer challenged one of the show’s stars. Guess who was the one dismissed! I remember the stunned look on the face of the show’s story editor when he came into the office of the production manager (I was present) and announced, “I’ve just been made the producer.”

At the same time, Senesky describes how Conrad and the stuntmen arranged and rehearsed fights, with Conrad not needing a double being a big help. As for co-star Ross Martin, his “wide range as an actor proved invaluable for Ross to assume many, various identities. In this episode he had the rare chance to be the romantic hero, since Jim West has allegedly been eliminated from the story.”

You can read Senensky’s full posts about Druid BY CLICKING HERE and Big Blast BY CLICKING HERE.

There’s also a post about a late first-season episode of Mission: Impossible (filmed as star Steven Hill was being phased out) that you can view HERE and a second-season episode of The FBI involving an espionage story HERE. Senensky also directed an I Spy episode, but didn’t write about it on the blog.